Monday, September 21, 2009

Jane Campion's 'Bright' future

For a while, it seemed that Jane Campion's career was destined to sink without a trace, much like the piano turfed into the ocean at the end of her best-known film. The New Zealand director's last movie was 2003's "In the Cut," an erotic thriller that was neither erotic nor thrilling. Even Paul Verhoeven must have snickered at its art-house veneer. Result: Meg Ryan's then-teetering career tipped over the A-list precipice and it has been in free fall ever since. The star's nudity and a scene of seemingly unsimulated sex by an extra became the stuff of punchlines in "Family Guy" and "Knocked Up." For Campion, it was time for a rethink.

Her comeback, "Bright Star," is a triumph on every level. It should, by rights, be a hit with the teens obsessed with "Twilight." After all, "Bright Star" is also about young love and its unconsummated romance is heightened by the thrumming tension of longing. But the notion of a movie about John Keats may be a tough sell for teen viewers. Let's face it, high-school readings of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" don't exactly bolster the poet's sex appeal.

But Campion's movie manages to bring his poems to life. It helps that Campion herself always found poetry to be a "members only" domain, a haughty form that only learned academics could truly claim to understand. Campion might not exactly have described it like I just have but, before Friday's screening, Campion explained that she'd never really understood poetry. So she started reading several biographies, including one about Keats. That, in turn, inspired her story about the Romantic poet's love affair with his next door neighbor, and later fiancé, Fanny Brawne. The film is told from her perspective and so the film isn't truly a biopic as such.

Fanny is played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish ("Somersault," "Candy") and it's one of those star-making roles where you wonder where this girl has been all this time. She's certainly getting an Oscar nomination for her deeply marinated performance, which is radiant with a star quality befitting the movie's title. Coquettish at first, and fiercely independent despite her callow youth, Fanny's flighty emotions deepen with intensity during the course of the story. In the role of Keats, Ben Whishaw imbues his performance with stillness, the yin to her yang.

What Campion achieves so wonderfully here is a period film that feels contemporary by eschewing the conventions and cliches of costume genre. Even the costumes look different (the designer is almost certainly going to win an Oscar next year). The cinematography is ravishing and yet its poetic images are so much of a piece with the story that the painterly scenes don't self consciously call attention to themselves.

For now, the film is in release in New York and Los Angeles (just 5 screens here on the West Coast). I hope this film doesn't sink without trace. Hopefully word of mouth should buoy this film during Oscar season.

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